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Why Is This Happening?: Delving into the future of friendship with Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow: podcast and transcript

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BFF connections have transformed rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic. FaceTime calls, Zoom happy hours, voice memos, group chats and virtual game nights, in many cases, have reworked our in-person interactions of the past. What does the future of friendship look like? Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow have been friends for over a decade, twelve years to be exact. Living on opposite coasts for years now, they had a head start on managing a long-distance friendship. Ann, a journalist, essayist and media entrepreneur and Aminatou, a writer, interviewer and cultural commentator, co-wrote “Big Friendship,” a book all about maintaining their close bond. They join for an inspiring conversation about the future of friendship and what it takes to stay connected for the long haul.

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Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Aminatou Sow: The thing that allows a relationship where you see someone only twice a year to not atrophy is the vulnerability of saying, “I want to see you more.”

Ann Friedman: As your responsibility shift, your time changes and all of that, but you can still decide that you’re in a period where you’re, like, I really need to be making some friends right now. Like this is the carve out in the calendar.

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Why Is This Happening with me your host, Chris Hayes.

We are doing our special future of series continues this week and I’m really excited for today’s guests, two guests. People whose work I’ve followed, who wrote a really cool book that we’ll get into in a second which just felt really distinct, and genre-bending, and also delightful, and exuberant and real.

It’s on a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, which is in the category of human relations, we’ve got sort of like four categories, I would say. Basically, there’s family, that’s a big category, and a very important one. There’s colleagues, like people you work with. There’s romantic relationships; relationships that run the spectrum of romantic love. Those can be purely physical. They can be dating. They can be lots of things in between. Then, there’s their friendship, which is this category that exists around and in between all these other categories we have.

You can have colleagues that are friends and family that are just family, but then there are family that are kind of friends like siblings that you actually hang out with. And I think that in some ways friendship is, in some ways, like one of the most important relationships we have, but also one of the least artistically represented. It oftentimes I feel like dramas tend to, particularly in the canon tend to revolve around families, basically, family members or lovers are like the two like highest stakes most dramatic kinds of relationships. Like that’s where we get like Hamlet, it’s like, well, you killed my dad, and I’m in love with you, and Romeo and Juliet, and those sorts of things.

Friendship, I think, is something that gets less represented in art, but is so important. There’s a lot of research recently about how important friendship is and I also think that it’s really undergoing a lot of changes in institution, I was just going back, the Greeks were very obsessed with friendship, all the Greek philosophers constantly talking about friendship. Although their friendship was a little different, because they were all kind of getting with each other, which was more what their friendship was, like very, very defined, like what their friendship was, which is this very specific form of male love and male bonding that was like extremely exclusive and very distinct to Greek culture.

But they did talk about friendship a lot and they did theorize it about a lot and they cared a lot about it. It’s an institution that is very important to my life, because my friends are really important to me. I’m very lucky to have very close friends and we’ll talk about that, and I also think it’s changing a lot. It’s changing because people’s lives are changing in terms of how they’re organized. There’s huge macro sociological changes in terms of where people live and how close they live to, say, the place I grew up, people are moving more, there’s more internal migration.

There’s also the way that technology changes friendships, which I think has been a huge part of the experience, particularly of the pandemic. And so I thought it was a kind of a cool idea to talk about or think about what the future of friendship would look like, particularly what we’ve learned about friendship in the last few years with two friends. They are the co-authors of a book called Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close. They also co-host their own podcast called Call Your Girlfriend, which is about a lot of things, but including friendship.

Ann Friedman who’s a journalist and essayist, media entrepreneur.

Aminatou Sow is a writer, interviewer, cultural commentator, you may have seen her and profiled in various media outlets. You may have encountered their podcast, heard them on social media. It’s great to have you guys both in the program.

Aminatou Sow: Thanks for having us.

Ann Friedman: Hello.

Chris Hayes: Hey. So let’s start with friendship and the pandemic, because I feel like that’s been like the big thing. We were just talking about this before I did the whole intro about how friendship has changed how much a lifeline it’s been during the pandemic, but also how it’s been changed by the conditions of pandemic socializing. How have you both experienced that? Let’s start with you, Aminatou.

Aminatou Sow: Where to even start? As you said earlier, the pandemic has just shifted and touched almost every single area of life. I think that for friendship specifically, it’s interesting because it is an institution generally that is not taken seriously.

Chris Hayes: Yep.

Aminatou Sow: And I think that the pandemic was a moment that really showed that for a lot of people. It was, like, who is your lifeline when we are in a once in a lifetime global mess. For Ann and I, two people who think a lot about friendship, I think that it’s still fair to say that like all of our relationships have been challenged in this time and every single way that we think about this institution has also been challenged because, one; I’ve never been through this and, two; the ambient anxiety means that you honestly, communicating, trusting ourselves, reaching out over and over and in some ways, it feels like we’ve been through six pandemics in this pandemic.

I think that for some people it was really hard in the beginning and that was not the case for me. Then, it got harder later on and there are just all of these waves. I think that this is just a moment of really taking stock about who is in your village, and who is in your bunker, and who is in your community. I think that, as you said earlier, family gets that top billing all the time, romantic relationships get top billing as well and we’re not against that. Those relationships are incredible.

But the truth about friendship is that it is a relationship that is incredibly malleable and also incredibly valuable and I think, at least, like a real source of revolution for a lot of people if we took it seriously.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. When you just said who’s in your village, there was something about – I remember, particularly, the first part of the pandemic where before we knew it, everything shut down. It felt like it went from zero to 60 and also felt like you were, for me, at least, it felt to me like I was living through history in this strange way like, whoa, this is not a thing that’s happened before. Like I’ve covered presidential campaigns like, well, presidential campaigns happen every four years. The U.S. occasionally goes to war. Like that’s the thing that the U.S. has done.

All of a sudden, like, no school is done, everything is done and it made me feel like a kind of elemental feeling. Like there was some deep part of me when you say like your village, it felt like I was in olden times or something. The feeling of olden times felt very connected to the human need for connection. How did you, Ann, experience that or how did you express that in the most sort of cocooned part of that early pandemic?

Ann Friedman: I mean, it’s so weird, because normally the things, the moments in life that really crystallize your need for a village tend to be happening just to you at that moment. I mean, there’s a health crisis or you become a parent or you become a caregiver of an aging relative or you move or whatever it might be, anything that shakes up your world considerably and creates a need to rely on your village either quite literally for food and support and everything or just emotionally. That’s you.

This pandemic was like everyone all at once, like you said. I think he said zero to 60, but for me maybe it felt like 60 to zero or something like that, whatever it was, it was a really dramatic shift in a short period of time while that meant really different things to each of us. For some people, it meant like a feeling of maybe extreme isolation for people who live alone or it meant, like, extreme overwhelm for people who are caregivers or any number of different manifestations.

It did mean that friends, which for most of us are not people who we live with or work with, became this – I don’t know, like maybe it was thrown to some relief because of that it was not so on the menu of like this has to get done today. I think for me, I thought a lot in those early days about the practice of being in long distance friendship and community, which is something that Aminatou and I have cultivated not necessarily by choice. I mean, we just live in different places and wanted to maintain our friendship.

But those are skills that just suddenly were super applicable to what used to be very casual or easy or routine friendships in my day to day life in person. Like suddenly everyone was someone I had to make time to call or check in on. Like suddenly no one was just like bumping into me in the world. I think about those days as being a real shift from my in person community becoming a more on screen community and all of a sudden there was a flattening of my friendships in that way.

Chris Hayes: There was this institution of the Zoom or FaceTime or there was some app that a bunch of us downloaded one point where it’s like everybody’s faces of some kind of virtual face get togethers that got instantiated, at least among friends of mine. It was strange because at one level it felt weird and alien, but there was also some part of that’s like, oh, this is actually kind of nice and across distances, why don’t we do this more.

The kind of barriers to entry are the barriers for how you communicate with people have gotten pretty low and in some ways the early days of the pandemic forced me to reckon with that and make think about how much I was reaching out to people or creating the conditions of friend interactions.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah. I think that that was different for a lot of people, like I grew up overseas and so ever since I was 19, Skype and like keeping up with people through video has been a huge part of my life. It’s the number one way that I keep up with my family. It’s the way that I keep up with my friends from high school and friends from other places.

I think, though, that there was, yeah, in some instances it was really nice to be on a Zoom of people that you hadn’t seen in forever or that the kind of high that you get from being like, okay, we can all make cocktails today and these are our friends across the globe.

But I will say that, for me, that was like hard almost immediately, because I am already practiced at internet interacting with people and it was really exhausting. It was really, really exhausting. I remember I was an early COVID birthday and the one thing that I had specifically asked for was no Zoom and it was the thing that I was surprised with. I had to put on like a really happy face and–

Chris Hayes: Wait, you had a Zoom surprise?

Aminatou Sow: Oh, I was like, “Please don’t Zoom.” I was like this is the lamest thing I can think of and, of course, it’s what happened and it was nice. It was nice to see my friends from all over the place, like in their cars, whatever. At the same time for me what the technology always did was just reinforce how far away from each other we were and there was something about systematizing it in the way that we did that, again, like depending on like what your relationship with your technology is or what your relationship with people is or where you said on the introvert extrovert spectrum. It was really, really tough.

I think that my overall takeaway from that is that having systems for keeping in touch with people in non-pandemic times is something that we should all be practicing a lot more and that’s certainly true for me, someone who just loves to self isolate. In this moment, it’s almost like too late to have a system when everything has fallen apart.

So when you talk about like Ann and I friendship being long distance, in some ways, we were really lucky that we had done all of the hard work of writing our book and all of the hard work of repairing our relationship like when we were not in a good place, because it meant that when the pandemic came, I was like, “Okay, all of my relationships are on the brink right now, but this one feels like it’s doing fine.” I was like, “We’ve worked on this one. This one is on autopilot, let’s go.”

Ann Friedman: I’d also like to take this opportunity to apologize for any role I may or may not have had in the surprise Zoom birthday.

Chris Hayes: I have one request and one request only.

Aminatou Sow: I was like, “One request only, thank you.” You know what? It was fun, though, thank you.

Chris Hayes: It’s impossible in some ways to talk about this without technology, because I do think if I were to make a pie chart of my friend interactions, the biggest part of the pie chart would probably be group text like just in terms of raw interaction, raw minutes, seconds spent.

Aminatou Sow: Was that not true before the pandemic for you?

Chris Hayes: It was probably true just as a matter, of course, because I have a job and I have three kids and a pretty crazy schedule, like I get home at 10 every night. So the amount of face to face social friend time is a little constrained before the pandemic, but I will say that the group text really exploded during the pandemic and has not gone down. To me it has been a real source of joy and comfort.

I sort of feel like and I wonder if you feel this way too, there’s something about texts, friend text and group text, that feel to me very pure and very young in kind of a great way and very beautiful and loving, whereas most other technology does not feel that way and I’m trying to get to the bottom of this. But I’m curious if you both feel that way about text particularly.

Aminatou Sow: Yes. I mean, text is where you can be within measure or your true self. I’m like text (inaudible) definitely going get subpoenaed like always and the rules of the group chat are that you can’t be the only person that’s talking shit, like everyone has to have something on someone, otherwise you’re on Twitter and then that’s the problem.

I think for a lot of people that I hear this from really it’s people and I’m very much this way, but I really scaled back on my use of social media because there is a difference between talking to people that you know and people that know you in a smaller setting than there is which is like vocalizing every single thought you have for the world to hear that I think definitely plays like a part of that.

Ann Friedman: Well, there is something about the text that’s like low touch, low stakes. It very different than the like let’s catch up on the last six weeks of your life–

Chris Hayes: Oh, god, totally.

Ann Friedman: –or six months of your life, which can feel so daunting to try to summarize what going on for you emotionally.

Aminatou Sow: This month on Ann, please tell us.

Ann Friedman: The last season, Aminatou–

Chris Hayes: Exactly.

Ann Friedman: Yeah. The text is much more like saw this thing and thought of you or like here’s a joke or can you believe this is what my neighbor has in their yard right now, which is a text, I feel like I send all the time because I’m just out walking around. That is something I relate to and I will also offer that the spontaneous phone call has really come into my life in a big way post Zoom fatigue.

That’s great, because the feeling of like, how are we going to schedule this around all of our lives and what’s going on, I mean, I have increasingly just taken to calling someone who I want to talk to. If they don’t pick up, it’s fine.

I know that that provokes a lot of anxiety in a lot of people, particularly those who are not elder millennials like me, but it has been a real joy for me.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah, millennials don’t answer the phone or ring doorbells, so it’s like fully anxiety provoking. But it’s interesting hearing both of you say this, because on one hand, it’s like, yes, we have all this technology to keep in touch. But at the same time like so much of this is a source of anxiety still, because the reason that I have taken to the phone call is because I’ve reached the point of text messaging where it’s hard to have a real conversation with someone on text, it’s hard to like read that nuance or not. I’m the queen of the voice memo, so like I will drop you a voice note.

Chris Hayes: The voice memo.

Aminatou Sow: I drop a voice note all the time.

Chris Hayes: I feel like the voice memo also and I’m deducing this from like a small category set, but I do feel like overseas it’s a bigger thing. Like I know overseas friends are all about the voice memo.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah, reading and writing is over. Like why would you type text message when you can tell someone in your voice.

Chris Hayes: But when I first started getting it from people overseas, I’m like, “Oh, this is a fascinating technology.” Like look at that, they’re talking. I was like, wait a second. This is, A; what we used to do and then also we used to listen to voicemail, which now I would never in a million years listen to voicemail, but a voice memo, it’s like, oh, let’s listen to you, just talking away there.

Aminatou Sow: I know. But I think it’s interesting like you have voice memos, you have whatever like voice memos for me is also like very low touch low stakes and it’s not a correspondence you have to keep up.

I will say Ann Friedman is a Midwest diva, so she is very plugged into her local post office and the amount of mail you get from this woman–

Chris Hayes: It’s true.

Aminatou Sow: –makes me feel very good. Yeah, we’re both big users of the USPS. Thank you.

Chris Hayes: That’s great.

Aminatou Sow: But there are all these ways that you can be in touch with people, but I think that like, fundamentally, a feeling that a lot of us have felt a different times in the pandemic is this feeling of loneliness or a feeling of aloneness and those two things are not always the same thing. Or at least like I will speak for myself being really, really confronted with like, is this all there is to life and where do I fit in, like where do I fit into my relationships, where do I fit in my community.

It’s been really, really hard and I think that one of the things that like social media has done like a thing that I hear a lot when I hear people talking about loneliness is this; everyone is watching what everyone else is doing on social media. This idea of just being like a tourist and other people’s lives and making these huge deductions like, oh, look about pod. They’re having a great time. I’m like, “No, that pod had like three COVID scares yesterday, like do not trust these people.”

Chris Hayes: Right.

Ann Friedman: That pod is in disarray and drama behind the scenes, yeah.

Aminatou Sow: That pod is in shambles like don’t even worry about it. But the thing that I think technology and social media does is that we observe and we are tourists in each other’s lives, as opposed to, again, like asking questions, like, what is this picture really about, how does that make you feel, what’s going on here.

It’s interesting that all of the things that you need to survive coronavirus is good communication generally is the thing that also will save our relationships is you really have to exercise a muscle of consent and asking questions and curiosity and being really precise and clear. I find myself challenged in my relationships in the same way that I am challenged with just navigating the virus in general.

Chris Hayes: Mm-hm.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah, and the generosity it requires too to really accept that look like when you live in a household with someone or when you are agreeing to pot up or whatever, there are these very explicit agreements and you have to get on the same page. But for friends who you do not live with or who are not in your pod, that is a negotiation every time the opportunity presents itself to see each other and I think like some generosity spirit as well of like, okay, this is what you’re doing. This is your safety boundary. This is mine. And that’s not even getting into the kind of politics about how people are inferring bigger values things from how people are choosing to live in these minute ways and so I think about all that stuff as well when I think about the way my friendships have been challenged in the pandemic.

Chris Hayes: We’ll be right back with more of our future friendship conversation after we take this quick break.

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Chris Hayes: I want to talk about the cold call or not cold call, cold call sounds like pejorative, just the phone call. Because I think there’s something fascinating about the fact that we have this technology and I don’t know about you two, but I spent three hours a day on the phone when I was 12 or 13 or 14 years old. I mean, I would just come home and just be on the phone and it was a huge formative part of friendship, particularly for me, I was commuting from the Bronx down in Manhattan. I live around the block from people, so this was how I was constantly in touch. We didn’t have cell phones.

The technology has fallen into such disrepair in our lives, partly because the actual technology sucks. Like a landline sounds amazing. You hear your own voice through the receiver, which is really nice. It’s intimate. It’s almost like a whisper. It’s like this mic as opposed to cell phone service, which sucks and always is breaking up and always sounds bad and you can’t hear yourself, so you shout.

But the phone call, I have been in the same place of rediscovering the phone call during the pandemic, on drive of just calling a friend I haven’t talked to in a while. There’s something profound and also weird about the fact you’re like, wait a second, I can just do this. Like it feels like I can just call Josh, can’t I? It’s like, “Why not?”

Aminatou Sow: You can just call people. You can just call people.

Chris Hayes: I can just call Josh.

Ann Friedman: I call my Josh all the time.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah. I have landline and I call like special people on the landline.

Chris Hayes: Oh, that’s good.

Aminatou Sow: It’s like when the princess phone and I call, it’s like is for special people only. You’re saying that you’re rediscovering the phone call. I love picking up the phone to call people and I also love FaceTiming and I think some of these things are also just generational, because I love to FaceTime people anytime.

If you FaceTime me no matter where I’m at, I will answer it and most people cannot handle that. They’re just like, I have to be ready. I have to be, whatever, and I was like, no.

Chris Hayes: No. I love the grocery store FaceTime or the running errands FaceTime with the phone sort of down, I actually love that, the atmospherics of that.

Aminatou Sow: I know but I love the pandemic FaceTimes with pals, because I got to see where everyone was, you know?

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Aminatou Sow: It was just there was something really special about that like take me on your walk, take me on your whatever. But the thing that I have rediscovered in the pandemic like a form of communication that had completely died for me was the long email, that emailing a friend where you’re just like, “Okay, here’s the 20 paragraphs about this week, Amina.” It’s been very restorative, but it’s also not for everyone.

I think that one of the ways that I find myself really challenged is that, the blessing and the problem of modern life is that we just know too many people. Like our parents’ generation, like there’s a reason that you would like look at these wedding parties and there’s like three bridesmaids and three groomsmen. It’s like these are the people who are the most important to you. I was like, people can’t do that today.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Aminatou Sow: If I had to make a mental list of like number ones, there is not a stage big enough to like hold all of us. I think like we don’t quantify relationships the same way and so just by virtue of, for me, like having lived overseas, but also if you’ve gone to college, not in the town that you grew up in, if you have moved for a job, if you have moved for a partner, if you’ve had any kind of mobility in your life, basically, you’re not living in the olden times.

Modern people know way more people than not modern people knew and this also really blurs the lines on like what kinds of friends are we like who is a friend and how do we negotiate that. Because some people think that they are closer to you than you think you are to them and vice versa, that happens all the time. But, yeah, so when I think about like the strain of technology, for me that strain is very much tied to how many people do you know and having to just make that mental list of like you’re checking up on everyone.

It’s like I remember my mom and her friends, they always had a phone tree. It’s how they would like give each other any kind of like crisis like bad news or good news.

Chris Hayes: Yep.

Aminatou Sow: I was like, we need to bring the phone tree back because it would be so much easier to keep everyone in touch, if you’re like you’re the touch point for these other people.

Ann Friedman: But doesn’t that happen tacitly to you particularly when it’s like big bad news, like doesn’t happen where like a friend is like, “Hey, will you get in touch with these other six people?” We know I can’t handle it right now.

Aminatou Sow: It does, but there’s something so beautiful about the phone tree where that was the whole point.

Ann Friedman: Like the explicit.

Aminatou Sow: Yes. It’s so explicit.

Chris Hayes: I love the phone tree. Yes.

Aminatou Sow: The phone tree was explicit, it was like, “Hi, there’s a riot. Tell everyone,” or, “There’s brownies for the school,” whatever. There’s just something about that that I really appreciate. But, again, we know too many people and that makes it hard.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. That point, the sort of large sociological forces I was talking about at the beginning, there’s all these things that are different than 20, 40, 60 years ago. It’s still the case that most people live within, I think it’s like a 20 mile radius to where they were born–

Aminatou Sow: Wild.

Chris Hayes: –it’s still the case in the U.S. That number has declined over time, although it’s still very high. I’m actually one of those people that live within a 20 mile radius where I was born in good old New York City. But the strains on this, the sort of when you think about earlier generation of people being geographically close to each other and then embedded in these institutions, whether it’s like the PTA or whatever it is that kind of the relationships revolve around.

I had summer friends when I was growing up who are just the kids who are around and sometimes they were close, sometimes you were not, but it’s just like they’re just the people around. I feel like a lot of adult friendships, for a lot of people and a lot of times have just been that. It’s your kids are in the same class or you live on the same block or you go to the same church. These produce these friendships, because the people are there.

But the nature of modern levels of mobility like just moving around a lot and knowing a lot of people going away to college and then maybe going somewhere for a job. Ann now you’re in L.A. and Aminatou year in Park Slope, like that, yeah, creates different rituals for how to have friendships and that’s only going to get more intense and more sort of scattered the further that that trend continues.

Ann Friedman: It’s true, but those friendships that you mentioned that are like, oh, we sit next to each other on the bleachers while our kids play sports and we go to the same church, like some of the experts we interviewed for the book were like, yeah, we study what it takes to turn those friendships into real friendships, like the kind of circumstantial and they don’t always make the leap. They don’t always make the transition.

I think what’s really interesting about this moment after those connections were gone and in some cases are still gone from everyday life, it’s like, “Oh, wait, was that person actually someone I was deeply connected to? Like, do I need to reconnect with them even though the circumstances are no longer there that keep us in touch?” I mean, I really asked myself a lot of questions about the role that those kinds of people play in my own like happiness as like an admitted extrovert. Like how much do I need the people who are not on my number ones.

Chris Hayes: Wait. So I have found one of the things that I didn’t realize I missed, but then I realized I missed when it came back were very casual friendships, like very, very. Like that level of like, for me, pickup basketball. I love playing pickup basketball and I know the people that I played pickup basketball with, I know their names, I kind of know what they do and might know where they live. Maybe we have a very effortless nice vibe.

We’re not like super tight friends. I’m not going to tell them if I’m mourning someone, some huge event life happened. It’s completely casual. Actually, that category relationship, even chatting at someone in a bar like talking to someone, the next table over whatever, I like those kinds of relationships and those entirely disappeared during the pandemic. That’s different than like friendship-friendship, but I actually found that middle space of casual like low stakes relationships really nice to come back to once thing started opening up more.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah.

Ann Friedman: The text message of friendship.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, right.

Aminatou Sow: But those relationships also take the pressure away from like everything has to be serious and intense. Yeah, like every single time I met a new person in the pandemic, I did make a lot of friends on the pandemic, actually, and every time I was like, this is like a heroin. I love it.

Chris Hayes: Seriously small talk is just like, “What are you up to?” Blah, blah, blah.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah, like a person would bring their friend, they’re like, “I talked to one more person I’ve been potted up with, I’m going to explode,” and you just hear a new voice or whatever. I had this magical night in New York in June where I ran into a friend on SoHo. Well, not even a friend, an acquaintance then, like now we’re friends. Someone who like we know each other’s first names, never knew last names and we’re like, “Whoa, the last time I saw you was like when we were talking about whether COVID was real.”

I went on a walk with this person and every single block we ran into someone that one of us knew and it was just like the loveliest, like at the end of the night I cried. I was so happy. I was like, “Hi. What’s your last name?” I connected with this person. But, yeah, I think there is something about having these casual bonds that are really good for us.

So much of what we write about in the book too is that the thing that is really special about friendship, this is true about every relationship, but in friendship, specifically, it happens in its own way that friends hold a mirror to you. Our mutual friend, Dayo Olopade, correctly ascertained that like we have sonar for each other. I think that that’s true even for these very low stakes friendships that you have. It really tells you about who you are in the world like you just get to tell a different story about yourself, you get to try on like a less fraught personality, if you want, and just live a little bit.

It’s also funny talking about this. I’ve read every single thing piece about marriage in the pandemic like it’s hard, it’s good, it’s whatever. One of the things that’s true is, well, guess what’s the thing that takes a lot of pressure off of your marriage being your everything, having friends.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Aminatou Sow: You can take that energy too.

Chris Hayes: Right. Because we all have different facets of ourselves and those show in different relationships. I mean, there’s no one person you’re going to be every part of yourself with.

Aminatou Sow: Do you know how much therapy I had to pay for before I knew that? That did not come with the instruction manual. I had to spend thousands of dollars before I realized, “What?”

Chris Hayes: Well, you just mentioned Dayo in your podcast called Call Your Girlfriend and this comes up in big friendship, too. There’s like a huge gender divide too in how these friendships work and also in trends. There’s all this stuff about how men have fewer and fewer friends and there has been this weird sociological development of more and more people saying they don’t have a single friend when the answer surveys as American life gets kind of more, I don’t know, lonely and alienated.

You guys talk about this a bit in the book, but what you think is driving that. I wonder if the pandemic reverses that trend, actually. That’s sort of the things I’ve been thinking about. Like what comes out of this different and what doesn’t. One of the things I think might come out of it is the way we see the social relations and friendship.

Ann Friedman: We do take pains to note that both of us have big, close friendships with men. Like that’s definitely true. I think sometimes this conversation gets a little muddled in questions of potential. The reductive interpretation is, like, “Oh, men just aren’t suited to this kind of platonic intimate bonding,” which is really funny, given everything you said about the Greeks earlier.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Aminatou Sow: (Inaudible) men. Always in shambles. Always in shambles.

Ann Friedman: Air quote resentment (ph), yeah. I mean, I do think there’s a couple things going on. It’s like it takes work and like it is true that people who are socialized as women are generally socialized to put more emphasis on an effort into emotional connections and relationships. Again, that is not anything about capacity or desire, it’s just like what is normalized?

Chris Hayes: Yep.

Ann Friedman: I do think that some of those statistics about people without a single friend or, I mean, men whose wives are the only person they talk to about their feelings ever, like those kinds of things make me profoundly sad and I think that’s one reason why we really took pains while we say, look, we’re describing a friendship between two people who socialize as women, two people who identify as women, we really don’t want to say this is a book about women’s friendships or this is a phenomenon about women’s friendships because like do not want to limit the sense of possibility that I think is equally present for all of the men I know, certainly.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, this is front of mind for me, because I just came back from a weekend with some of my best male friends who I’ve been friends with since high school, since 12, basically. Some of them went to elementary school together, so they’ve been friends since they were four.

Aminatou Sow: We love to see it.

Chris Hayes: Five.

Aminatou Sow: Love to see it.

Ann Friedman: Mm-hm.

Chris Hayes: I mean, it’s crazy like some of them could remember meeting the other one building blocks like in pre K. I mean, that’s the level. I really prioritize these friendships, we all do. I think collectively they’re really important to us and I do think that people who are raised as men are not trained and raised to see that as important and they’re not trained and raised also, I think, to do the emotional stuff.

There’s a lot of razzing, and jokes and all the stuff that comes with a certain kind of very overdetermined, trained male bonding like a normalized thing. But then there’s also like, “Hey, this is my sick family member.” It’s like, “My kid has been struggling.” That stuff is the deep stuff and honestly it’s harder. I think people, depending on how they’re conditioned and trained, like conditioned and trained as men, particularly just men are not great at that.

That’s not like a generalization like some are. But that toolkit of like, “Hey, this is where I’m at and this deeper emotional stuff is harder,” but it’s also super rewarding. That balance that you get in friends between like laughing at goofy stuff, and also being able to talk about the deep stuff, that really is a special unique thing that comes out of that relationship that isn’t really replicated in the same way and any other kind of relationship.

If it’s not there, to me, it’s a phantom limb kind of thing. Like there’s a thing that is not happening.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah. You know what kind of is frustrating to me about sometimes the way that this gendered conversation works out is that I am someone who is like a self-proclaimed emotional idiot. It’s true that I was socialized to do more of this emotional work, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy or that I know how to do it or that just because women talk about their feelings that it’s a successful productive conversation either. Ann, am I letting on too much?

Ann Friedman: I’m just laughing. All kinds of toxic like intra female friendship conversations like yeah, it’s not always good or perfect, right.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah, it’s always good. I was like, “Some of you should share less of your feelings, actually, and (inaudible)–

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Aminatou Sow: –your feelings.

Chris Hayes: I always say as a straight white man raised in the Irish Catholic tradition, I actually think a certain amount of repression, a certain amount of stuffing it down is actually pretty good sometimes.

Aminatou Sow: One hundred percent. One hundred percent.

Chris Hayes: Can go really long way. Like you don’t want too much of it but also you don’t want a total absence of it.

Ann Friedman: Walking that repression line.

Aminatou Sow: One (inaudible), not me agreeing with the white man, not me agreeing with the white man, but it is true.

Chris Hayes: Like just push it down.

Aminatou Sow: But here’s the thing, because I know a lot of men, actually, both American and non-American who have really deep friendships with their male friends and there are just so few avenues to celebrate that, I think that because women’s friendships are so infantilized, we have ways to kind of like a signal to the world that–

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Aminatou Sow: –like, here’s my crew, here’s my squad, my, whatever, that is very visible and very seen. But when I think about like what I want the future of friendship to be, I was like I would like for us to find ways to like really celebrate different kinds of friendships.

Ann and I celebrate our friend anniversary. I was like, we are putting the time in here, like this is worth it.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Aminatou Sow: We go on vacations. We take pictures. Like everything that your family tried to make you do that you hated, it’s like it turns out building ritual is important and building memories is important.

Chris Hayes: Yes. They were on to something.

Aminatou Sow: They were totally onto something, but I think that a place where, not me sympathizing with the men again, but I think a place where it is really hard for men is that there are just so few avenues, where we allow for men to have these like really just intense bonds and to celebrate them.

Then, when I think about the thing that you said about more and more people are saying that they have no friends at all, I find that also baffling. For me, I was like, I guess, like the answer to that question is do you feel like you have no friends or do you really have no friends.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Aminatou Sow: But then again, it’s like loneliness really is just a gap between the distance that you’re feeling in your relationships. People are not just alone. So much has been made about this pandemic of loneliness and it’s certainly true, like people feel a sense of aloneness and loneliness. The numbers really do not bear out that millions of Americans are walking around without like one person who would like check in on them if they needed to.

Ann Friedman: One thing that comes to mind for me is there is no friendship, certainly no meaningful relationship without vulnerability and I think about that trait. I mean, it’s not easy for people who socialized as women to be vulnerable either.

Chris Hayes: True.

Ann Friedman: But I think when you look at like the sort of cocktail of messages that are delivered to people who are raised as men, vulnerability is not exactly prized. I think that feeling of I want the reward of a close friendship, and now I’m talking about people of all genders, but I am too scared to be vulnerable or I don’t want to take the risk or I don’t want to put in the time or I don’t want to actively work that empathy muscle, it’s like, well, then you don’t get the reward. Like, I’m sorry, but there’s a real work aspect of this that I think we have thought and written a lot about that is not, for any gender, the sexy celebrated part of it.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. One of the things I took away from your book, which I really loved, was the aspect of time, like putting in the time. That is, I think, a thing that happens and I don’t think this is necessarily unique or distinct to this moment, although there are, again, a lot of big macro factors in terms of how long people are commuting or how long they work, the amount of family they have around them or don’t have around them that contribute to this, but you have to prioritize it and the more attenuated people’s social circles get, the more time it takes to do.

So if someone lives next to you, because you’re from the same town and then you bought houses on the same block because that was the natural flow of things, there’s just less time to put in, than, oh, I’m going to make sure I see you twice a year. We’re on different coasts or we’re going to go on vacation together and things atrophy in the absence of that work. That’s really part of the lesson here, too.

Aminatou Sow: I would submit to you though that, it’s true, we all only have 24 Beyonce hours in the day, everyone has their responsibilities or whatever. But the thing that allows a relationship where you see someone only twice a year to like not atrophy is the vulnerability of saying, I want to see you more.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Aminatou Sow: It is like staining intentions. All kinds of relationships is really important and usually people will relegate that a lot to romantic relationships, but friendships are the same way. You do have to state your intentions. You have to check in. You have to show a degree of trust. Like a degree of like desire. It’s true, it’s like you can’t like reshuffle the calendar all the time.

But I think that the way that the friendship doesn’t get cold is when they know that you are thinking about them and I think it’s the thing that I appreciate about this relationship so much is that in friendship, there is a kind of grace that does not exist. Like you can’t tell your parents, like, I’m going see you in a year. Like a lot is going on, I just had a baby. You’re like, “Mom and dad, we just had a baby. You can’t come over for a year.”

Chris Hayes: It’s just too crazy.

Aminatou Sow: No.

Chris Hayes: It’s too crazy right now.

Aminatou Sow: No, they’re literally like jail. Like they will call the FBI on you and it’s over. You can’t really like tell your spouse like, “Work is a little crazy, so I’m going check out for six months, but I’ll be back in here.” That is a conversation that you can have with friends and you can do that because there is a lot of grace and there is a lot of flexibility there, but it’s hard. It’s hard. Everything is hard.

Chris Hayes: Well, the other thing when you talk about building rituals, the things that your family wanted you to do, another thing that I have discovered, I think Kate and I both feel this way is that like there is a quality over quantity aspect too, where if you spend – like we’re very lucky we have a place upstate and sometimes people will come up there, maybe we’re together for 18 hours or 24 or whatever it is.

But the depth of that time like swaths of uninterrupted time with the person, up at one the morning by the fireplace like getting deep or whatever is so incredible and adds up to so much even if it doesn’t happen that often. That deep time together like uninterrupted time in each other’s presence really adds up to a lot if you can make the time for it for tending those relationships and having them feel present and real in today’s hectic world as it were.

Ann Friedman: Well, that’s how and where you get to a place of actual openness and honesty about what’s going on with you.

Chris Hayes: Yes, exactly.

Ann Friedman: Because it is absolutely crucial to make the time and state the intention, but then if you’re not really showing up with your full self or you’re not bringing that vulnerability, then it’s like it’s never going feel satisfying or like a real connection. I think this is hard won lessons through many expensive hours of therapy with the two of us. It’s like it can feel like you’re showing up, but if you are not actually talking about like the real stuff of your life at some point, there is going to be distance there.

I think that point about going away together and that deep time is that’s what that really facilitates. That’s just like glue for a long term friendship.

Aminatou Sow: Right. It’s like you have to figure out a way to build intimacy and you do that in the way that works for the two people in their relationship. But it’s tough if only one person is being vulnerable. It’s tough if everyone is only talking about superficial things. It’s tough if you don’t see each other like struggle and be stretched and feel a sense of generosity again.

It’s really, really hard but at the same time, I just think so much about how or as maligned as friendship is when you think about the things that have been hard in the pandemic, like I was lucky to spend a lot of my pandemic with a family that I love very much and being around children like that was the mental health savior of my life.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Aminatou Sow: Shout out to the eight year old who said, “What did you do during COVID-15?” And I was like, “Buddy, this is my first COVID, but I hear you.” Comedy is about to be nonstop. But when I think about just like the ways that the pandemic has really, really, really just like overtax to parents and especially like mothers, part of the solution to that is I was like, it is like building a group of friends.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Aminatou Sow: I was like I think the government should like 100% give us child care. But in the absence of that, I really want a world in which like, being a member of a family unit does not mean that you’re all blood related or you claim to be together.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Aminatou Sow: Ann and I joke in our book that for a long time we used to send wedding gifts like jointly, we have had each other on our insurance paperwork or 401(k)s, like health benefits, like all of that stuff. The older I get, the more furious I am that our entire tax code is geared towards like getting the heterosexual people to have 1.5 child, like children. Whereas here are adults who just want to make adult decisions about how we spend our money, how we spend our time, how we show up for the people in our community and every part of society makes that really hard.

The loneliness that a lot of people feel in America is because the family unit here is in shambles. It’s like can you imagine like it’s a mom and dad and kids, like get the grandparents in there, get your friends in there, get some aunts and uncles in there.

Chris Hayes: Totally, yeah.

Aminatou Sow: It is not a normal way to live life. The rest of society does not live like this and western society gets this wrong.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. It’s funny the older I get the more I want like the house filled all the time. Like I have three children, Kate and I live (inaudible) we also have an au pair, who’s from here, from Columbia and I like having all of us together. I think of her, she’s 22 or whatever, feels like a family member like a cousin or a niece or something and I like the fullness of the house. We have holidays, Kate’s folks, my folks were all together, I like that. I like that feeling of fullness.

Like I’ve come to want more and more of that. I think when I was younger maybe wanting space alone was more of my desire or wanting to (inaudible) your own space, but I like went bunch of people are around and someone’s playing with the kids, and someone else is walking the dog and there’s like movement and activity that feels full to me. I really feel what you’re saying.

One thing I wonder about too is people in their different age stages of life and one thing I think about a lot is young people entering the workforce where work is both work, but also very social. I feel like when you’re in your 20s, there’s after work drinks. You meet people that you might become really good friends with through work. There’s the kind of thrill of being in the ‘adult world’.

All of that is gone now for the last two years for almost all people. I feel really bad for folks that are 22, 23.

Aminatou Sow: Feel bad for people who aren’t going to those bad happy hours? Please.

Chris Hayes: I mean, okay, but, yes–

Ann Friedman: Don’t worry if you’re listening, you’re not missing anything.

Aminatou Sow: You’re literally not missing anything.

Chris Hayes: I mean, I agree but also it’s like, I don’t know, you’re 23, you’re probably sharing an apartment with three other people and that you’re in your room all day doing zooms. I mean, there’s something about being out in the presence of other people your age that I feel, I don’t know, that is like completely gone. I don’t think office culture is an incredible thing that we have to revive or bring back.

Aminatou Sow: Wow, Chris Hayes, the champion of office culture. It all comes out.

Ann Friedman: I have cubicle advocacy.

Chris Hayes: I am not for the office culture, but I do think that aspect of it I think a lot about.

Ann Friedman: Yeah. I agree with you and I have thought a lot about what this pandemic would have been like for me if it had happened at other stages of my adult life for sure.

Aminatou Sow: RIP, I would not be here.

Ann Friedman: Oh, my god.

Aminatou Sow: This was the best time that’s going to happen to me.

Ann Friedman: But I also want to offer that like the very fact that like those early 20s years or like if you do go to college, your college years are the prime or exclusive time for making really good friends is something that I think that narrative has to change if we’re all going to have really healthy adult friendships. I mean, what is happening right now as everyone is like, okay, like, who do I really want to bring back into my life or like who am I okay with letting go.

Those are questions that happen again and again and again. I mean, there is all kinds of research that says a lot of people’s friend groups turns over, like a whole friend group turns over every seven or eight years. This is not something where it’s like meet your friends when you’re building blocks together and you keep them your whole life.

That is really cool and I love that, but also it is statistically not the norm.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Ann Friedman: So I want a robust and fulfilling social experience for people in their early 20s and I also want all of us to realize that it’s like, yeah, I mean, like as your responsibilities shift, your time changes and all of that, but you can still decide that you’re in a period where you’re like I really need to be making some friends right now. Like this is the carve out in the calendar.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah. It’s like when I think about the older people in my life, who are like models of like possibility for how I want to be. Like the people are like, “Okay. I want this person’s wardrobe. I want this person’s personality,” like what’s going on?

Ann Friedman: I want this person’s dinner party.

Aminatou Sow: This person’s dinner party. Yeah. I’m honestly like very lucky to have a group of friends that like spans, I would say, like teenage year well into mid-80s. The thing that I really, really admire about my friends in their 70s and 80s, the ones that I hold close is that they have new friend energy all the time. It’s like I became friends.

Chris Hayes: Mm-hm.

Ann Friedman: Mm-hm.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Aminatou Sow: There’s something about that, that I just like really, really deeply admire.

Ann Friedman: They’re putting out the vibe.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah, they’re putting out the vibe. It’s the thrill of the chase.

Chris Hayes: They are out in the streets.

Aminatou Sow: They are out in the streets.

Ann Friedman: Yes.

Aminatou Sow: But guess what, Chris, you’ve got to be out in the streets always.

Ann Friedman: If you want friends, yeah.

Chris Hayes: Well, this is a thing that I think about a lot because I remember being in Italy when I studied there and there were the crews that just hung out in the plaza all day and it was old men and old women.

Aminatou Sow: Yep.

Chris Hayes: And they had their posse and I loved it. They were there, they just chilled. They fed the pigeons. They argued politics. They talked about football. They talked about gossip. They talked about whatever, it’s a thing that I think a lot of us have complex feelings about aging, the passage of time, et cetera.

But a thing I have a pretty uncomplicated feeling about is when you’re older, particularly if you’re not working anymore, 60s and 70s, particularly, there’s a lot of time for friends. That’s really awesome and beautiful and that’s a part of life that I feel the same way as you. There are people that I know in their 70s and 80s who are great friends and great friends with each other and spending a lot of time with their friends. That’s a really amazing part of life.

Aminatou Sow: Total friend flirts. Like everywhere you go. They’re just like, whatever.

Ann Friedman: Mm-hm.

Aminatou Sow: But here’s the thing, this is how you know capitalism is a scam. It’s like you’re supposed to work hard until you’re – what is retirement in this country, like 60, what?

Ann Friedman: Our generation is never retiring, don’t worry about it.

Aminatou Sow: I mean, we’re never retiring.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, you’re right. Yeah.

Ann Friedman: Truly.

Aminatou Sow: My trust, I talked to my accountant, I need to die the day after I retire, because I can’t afford it. It’s like you work so hard and then it’s like, oh, now you have all this free time to travel and hang out with friends? Well, guess what, if you didn’t put the work in your like 30s, 40s, 50s–

Chris Hayes: Right. No, that’s exactly right.

Ann Friedman: Yeah, like what are you been doing for the past 40 years, yeah.

Aminatou Sow: –you are going to be the senior who was no one and so that’s all of the research and all of the anecdotal data that we have says that like 30s to 50s really is the graveyard of like friendship years. It’s when everyone is taxed with work and family obligations, caretaking.

The reasons that people are not making friends are super valid. Like all of those things are big.

Ann Friedman: And structural.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah, they’re structural, big, important things and at the same time really if you’re going to play the long game of well, like, what does it look like? What does your golden girl scene look like? Like, I am playing for my Golden Girls ending, like that’s what’s going to happen.

Ann Friedman: By the way like who’s in the palazzo with you?

Chris Hayes: Yeah, I think about that. By the way, Rue McClanahan was 52 in the pilot for Golden Girls, you know that?

Ann Friedman: Mm-hm.

Aminatou Sow: Wild.

Ann Friedman: Yeah.

Aminatou Sow: Wild.

Chris Hayes: It’s so wild.

Aminatou Sow: Wild.

Chris Hayes: Wild.

Ann Friedman: But really, I would offer to you it’s about the lifestyle, not the age number. Like whenever one cites that I’m like, yeah, but who doesn’t want to live with their three best friends at 52? Like, killing it.

Chris Hayes: No, totally. But it changes the vision, it’s like, well, right, like they’re not on death’s door, they just don’t have their kids at home. They’re all in Florida, chilling. Like that’s pretty cool. Good for them.

Ann Friedman: It explains all the sex blanche she’s having.

Chris Hayes: Exactly.

Ann Friedman: She’s living her best life, yeah.

Aminatou Sow: The last, last thing that drove me off of Twitter was watching a fight into where some kids were saying that someone in their 30s was like middle age and I was like, I’m out of here. Like this is the last straw. This is the last straw. Words mean things and I’m out of here.

Ann Friedman: Okay. But I posit to you with average life expectancy late 30s is pretty much middle age. That’s all I will say in defense of those children on Twitter.

Aminatou Sow: Wild.

Chris Hayes: Well, now I’m going to have to remove this podcast.

Aminatou Sow: I know. Goodbye. Goodbye. Why is this happening, Ann? Why?

Chris Hayes: I think the key point though is that you can make friends. Honestly, this is like the sound strictly, but it really is true that from four years old or two years old playing with blocks to eight years old, you can meet people and you can make friends, and it’s one of the great joys of life that we should celebrate and care for and tend and something that you guys have written really beautifully about tending and caring for.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah. And it just teaches you so much about yourself like make friends for pure selfish motives, you will learn so much about yourself.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Aminatou Sow: I think that if a lot of us are honest, also, like I know you made the joke about the Greek philosophers all like being more than friends.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Well, it was all very complicated.

Aminatou Sow: Here’s the truth, though, you know what I mean. But it’s also like that’s fine.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Aminatou Sow: Like the older I get, the more I’m like I am in love with my friends. Like that is true and platonic relationships are very important and just because we live in a world that really, I don’t know, like elevates and celebrates romantic relationships, I think that it really like cheapens the bonds that a lot of us have with each other.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Aminatou Sow: Just because we’re not doing it together, doesn’t mean that we’re not doing life together.

Chris Hayes: That’s true.

Ann Friedman: Yeah, it is life. We are doing.

Chris Hayes: That is true.

Aminatou Sow: Yeah, we’re doing life and I think that for more people, if we were more honest, like I think that the place that we really learn how to be in love and how to be our best selves in relationships is actually within our friendships. I just want people to take friendship more seriously.

Ann Friedman: Well, and I would add that this is like the moment, right?

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Ann Friedman: Like everyone’s reconsidering it. This is like actually a rare moment of widespread opportunity to do exactly that, because everybody is taking stock and looking around and thinking about what they want from their friendships.

Chris Hayes: That is exactly why I wanted to talk to you guys. Ann Friedman is a journalist, essayist and media entrepreneur in Los Angeles. Aminatou Sow is a writer, interviewer, a cultural commentator in New York City. They co-wrote Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, co-hosting their own podcast Call Your Girlfriend, which is great. They’ve been friends more than a decade and it is great to have you both on Why Is This Happening. Thanks so much.

Aminatou Sow: Thanks for having us.

Ann Friedman: Thanks, Chris.

Chris Hayes: Once again, my great thanks to Ann and Aminatou. Those two are fantastic. Their book, Big Friendship, I really recommend and their podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, which I think is basically approaching its end or has ended by the time you listen to this, but I think maybe you can look at the back archives. I just love their energy and their insight. That book is a really interesting book. It’s not really like any other book I’ve read, so I really recommend it.

Our four-part WITHpod Future of mini series continues. Next in our feed, Breakthrough Energy Managing Director Jonah Goldman on the future of energy.

Jonah Goldman: If you’re an innovator in 2022 and you’re looking at climate, I mean, there is more capital available for you than you could ever imagined in a different situation.

Chris Hayes: Why Is This Happening is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.



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